Remembering Neil Moss…

…sixty years after the tragedy of his death in a Peak District cavern

On Sunday, 22 March 1959, Oscar Hackett Neil Moss became jammed while trying to pass down a narrow unexplored tunnel in Stalagmite Chamber – now known as Moss Chamber – in Peak Cavern, one of England’s best known caves with its imposing entrance overlooking Castleton in Derbyshire. In 2006, David Webb’s film about the tragedy set about correcting some of the myths surrounding the rescue attempt by talking to those who were there. Based on an article written by David in 2007, we look back at how the incident unfolded and its influence on cave rescue.

Late in January, an email found its way into the editor’s inbox. An appeal for help. Not for mountain rescue (the days of calling us out by telegram being long gone) but for information. And not about mountain rescue either.

‘I recently read an article on your website [Fight for Life: the Neil Moss story],’ said Pete. ‘I’d be interested to learn more about this tragic event and the brave rescue attempts. I’ve tried to find a copy of the DVD online but have been unable to do so. Having checked your website, I can’t see it listed there either. I appreciate this DVD is a few years old now but I wondered if you had any suggestions for how I might be able to locate a copy? Any help would be much appreciated’.

Well, it’s always good to receive positive feedback – not least for an article published seven years ago – and, as it turned out, we were able to put Pete in touch with the author and filmmaker, David Webb, who also happened to have some copies of the DVD.

All of which reminded us that this year is the sixtieth anniversary of a cave rescue which became a pivotal moment in caving history, the perfect opportunity to retell the tale here. We’ve also stocked our newly-expanded bookshop with copies of the DVD. Just in case.

Neil Moss Moss Chamber
Neil Moss and a schematic of Moss Chamber with the shaft © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Moss was a twenty-year-old undergraduate, studying philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, and also the sports-loving son of a British cotton executive. By all accounts he loved to explore and where better than the vast unknown darkness underground?

He was one of eight cavers from the British Speleological Association who entered the Derbyshire cave that fateful day. Their intention was to explore a passage about half a mile from the show cave, discovered just two weeks earlier. They elbowed, crawled and climbed their way through narrow mud-filled passages, a thousand feet below ground until they reached a larger, open chamber from which a still narrower shaft led almost straight down. Slimly built and six foot tall, Moss was the first to descend.

In Race against Time, Jim Eyre and John Frankland describe how four of the party had been involved in the original exploration. ‘They knew that the tight shaft corkscrewed and was difficult. They had also estimated that the depth of the shaft was approximately forty feet but seventy-five feet of ladder was lowered down the hole in case the shaft continued’.

At around 3.30pm, Moss forced himself into the hole, ‘kicking all the surplus ladder before him. The shaft hung slightly off vertical for twelve feet, then came a difficult corkscrew twist leading to a ten-foot long inclined bedding plane and then a further vertical eighteen-foot drop’.

Thinking he might be able to move the boulders blocking the shaft to one side, Moss manoeuvred himself to a slight recess but in his struggle jammed the loose ladder beneath him. Tired of struggling, he determined to climb out of the shaft, but he never resurfaced. Unable to lift his feet sufficiently to climb back up the ladder he became ‘sandwiched in an elliptical slit only eighteen inches wide’ and asked the others to pull the ladder whilst he held on to it. They succeeded in lifting him a few feet but then the ladder jammed.

Rescuers make preparation
Rescue team members prepare to help © David Webb, courtesy the James Lovelock collection.
Muddy cavers in the vestibule
Muddy cavers exit to the vestibule for a change of clothes and to swap stories All images © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Difficulties such as these are not rare in caving and Moss’s companions at first took it for granted that rescue would be a mere matter of lowered ropes and heaving. Gradually, the truth dawned.

Several attempts at hauling him up with ropes ended in failure, each time the rope snapping or shearing on the rock edge. By now the atmosphere was severely polluted, the air flow to the shaft cut off by his body. Moss was clearly becoming disorientated, his behaviour irrational. In The Honour of Being Human, written 25 years after the event, George Cooper, described him as becoming ‘less cooperative’ seemingly ‘unconcerned about the seriousness of his plight’ even suggesting to the others ‘that they go out and eat’.

His rescuers too began to feel the debilitating effects of carbon dioxide. Three of the volunteers lost consciousness whilst attempting to descend the shaft. A fourth, Ron Peters, succeeded in getting a rope around Moss’s chest but this only added to his breathing difficulties.

Oxygen delivery Peak Cavern
The oxygen delivery lorry with ambulance in the background © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.
Carrying oxygen to the cavern
Carrying oxygen cylinders up to the cavern © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

When a delivery of oxygen bottles arrived at 12.30am, it was in the hope that this would revive Moss and facilitate his extraction. Again and again, his would-be rescuers entered the shaft but were forced back, often themselves in a confused and distressed condition.

As an RAF doctor, waist-deep in mud, pumped oxygen down through a tube, a renewed plea went out – for an experienced caver small enough to negotiate the narrow shaft.

Rescuers and police officer in vestibult
Rescuers discuss the rescue effort with a police officer © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

Early in the morning of the second day, eighteen-year-old June Bailey – later described by a British Pathé newsreel as ‘a Manchester typist’ – turned up, eager to make the descent. A number of media reports later described the part she played in the rescue effort, including that her instructions were to break Moss’s collarbones if necessary to free his shoulders. However, none of these can be substantiated, says Webb – though doubtless she did enter the cave.

By early Monday afternoon, almost 24 hours after he had entered the cave, Moss’s laboured breathing could still be heard.

‘We felt we had to try it all again,’ say Eyre and Frankland. ‘Compressed air cylinders were used to try to blow the foul air out of the tube. The walls, ladder and rope were smothered in mud. All that could be seen of Moss was an indistinct muddy blockage far below and he was last reported as being firmly jammed in an unmovable position with one arm forced into a recess under a ladder rung with the effort to free him’.

Meanwhile, others tried excavating the rock lower down, hoping to break through into a lower tunnel, but it soon became clear this was in vain.

Ron Peters
Ron Peters, on the left of the rescuers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

The incessant rain was threatening to flood the Mucky Ducks area of Peak cavern. The advice came through to withdraw, for everyone’s safety. When the rain eased off, with one of the RAF doctors to have joined the rescue effort, they returned to the head of the shaft where they had last heard Moss breathing. But this time there was no sound. In Webb’s documentary film about the tragedy, Dr Hugh Kidd describes the experience as the first and only time he had declared death without actually seeing the patient.

Though the exact time of Neil Moss’s death is uncertain, the inquest stated 3.00am on Tuesday 24 March.

His father, Eric Moss, had waited at the tunnel entrance throughout the ordeal and it was he who requested his son’s body be left in place, before anyone else risked their lives. According to those left to clear up, the lower part of the shaft was sealed with a number of loose rocks, collected from the floor of the chamber – not with concrete as frequently reported – and an inscription left nearby.

The Neil Moss story became worldwide news, reported in newspapers in America and Australia as well as here in the UK. On 6 April, Sports Illustrated reported that ‘all was quiet for a while’ as Moss worked his way down, ‘then suddenly from some forty feet below came the terrible, factual statement: ‘I say, I’m stuck, I can’t budge an inch.’

Radio news bulletins went out via the BBC and, within hours, volunteers from all over England responded to the call for help. The RAF, National Coal Board, Royal Navy and dozens of private caving groups had joined in the rescue effort. Sadly, the intense media interest also drew morbid crowds of ‘sightseers’ and fed a number of apocryphal accounts of the event.

Peak Cavern Vestibule Neil Moss Tragedy
Peak Cavern vestibule packed with rescuers and onlookers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

The three-day incident had a huge impact on Castleton and its inhabitants, and all those involved in the rescue. In echoes of the Thai cave rescuers of last year, some of the key figures involved received recognition at the highest level for their efforts. In August 1959, Ron Peters was awarded the George Medal, Les Salmon, John Thompson and Flt Lt Carter the BEM.

As a direct result of the tragedy, new procedures for the call-out and coordination of cave rescue began to take shape. Neil Moss did not die in vain, nor will he be forgotten. The story of his death remains a salutary reminder of the fragility of life and the nature of risk.

In 2004, it was retold in the novel One Last Breath by Stephen Booth and, in 2006, Webb – a Derbyshire caver himself – produced his DVD on the story. Filming had begun several years earlier and continued intermittently, but was finally completed late in 2005, following sustained prodding from the principal protagonists. Time was marching on.

‘In 1994, I found myself in Peak Cavern and Moss Chamber. I was already familiar with the outline details of the immense physical and emotional struggle that had taken place there thirty-five years earlier, but the large, well-decorated chamber that housed the tiny shaft which became Neil Moss’s final resting place possessed an extraordinary atmosphere that was impossible to ignore.

‘Here was human drama which had captured the imagination of cavers and non–cavers alike. The fact that, had he lived, Neil Moss would have been the same age as me, was an additional spur to retell the story, through the medium of video, using the recollections of those who were there.

‘The story was already well documented and the announcement to caving colleagues that I was planning to make a film met with mixed reactions. A few thought I’d be opening a can of worms, but most were very supportive and felt the rescue attempt an important part of local caving history and should be recorded for posterity.

‘Despite the heroic efforts in almost impossible conditions, there followed many accusations and counter-claims regarding poor organisation and incompetence relating to the failure to extract Neil. Some of the media coverage was negative towards cavers and caving as an activity. Certain quarters called for it to be banned altogether as irresponsible and dangerous’.

‘I wanted to show the structure and voluntary nature of our rescue services. The Neil Moss rescue attempt was a pivotal moment in caving history. It focused minds and changed attitudes in a manner that helped move the sport towards a more considered approach and became the catalyst for the reorganisation of the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation. I wanted to record the memories and feelings of those who were there and present a study that was as unbiased and factually accurate as possible.

‘Two very full accounts exist – one by Eldon PC member George Cooper (referenced earlier), the other by Les Salmon, one of the rescuers. Both have since died. I was also fortunate to find a box of correspondence between Les and Eli Simpson of the BSA. This included a copy of the police log which revealed the true extent of the three-day operation.

‘My first scoop was to be granted an interview with Bob Toogood, one of the original team, who agreed to be interviewed in Moss Chamber. Spurred on by this, I went on to interview others who took part, each with a different perspective.

‘The only photographs of the site had been taken by well known French caver Jo Berger, which subsequently appeared in Paris Match (although as coroner’s evidence they should not have). My lengthy correspondence with the Paris Match office failed to produce the desired issue. However, I did receive the following week’s edition, which contained an article and photos of the diminutive caver June Bailey who had offered to help. The female angle was picked up on by the media although she had not been allowed to descend the shaft. It was some time later when Ralph Johnson produced a yellowing and slightly dog-eared copy from his attic complete with Jo Berger’s famous photos.

WVS ladies dispense refreshments
WVS ladies dispense refreshments to the rescuers © David Webb, courtesy James Lovelock collection.

‘Eventually, I also received a collection of old press photos from James Lovelock, author of Life and Death Underground, which contains an illustrated chapter on the incident. He had been a freelance reporter with the News Chronicle at the time. This was the icing on the cake, as the quality and relevance of the photos was outstanding.

‘Having thoroughly enjoyed gathering material, interviewing people and making new friends along the way, I faced the daunting task of actually making the movie. The hardest part was deciding on the structure and a storyline that flowed, with twelve hours of footage to trawl through and a commentary to make, to fit the sequence of photographs. It took almost a year dipping in and out to complete the project.’

And thirteen years after releasing his DVD, it continues to be well-received. If you, like Pete, would like to secure a copy – and support Mountain Rescue England and Wales at the same time – we now have copies available in the shop.

With thanks to David for his proofreading and corrections, and to Pete, who first inspired us to retell this tale.

References: Mountain Rescue Magazine, July 2007. ‘Background to making Fight for Life’ by David Webb. Descent (195), April 2007. Wikipedia. Sports Illustrated. British Pathé ‘Pothole Tragedy 1959’ pothole-tragedy. ‘Race Against Time’ by Jim Eyre and John Frankland. ‘The Honour of Being Human’ by George Cooper, 1984.


  1. Tim Gillott on March 25, 2019 at 11:55 am

    This is fascinating. My Dad used to talk about this rescue and he was one of the volunteers. I’m pretty sure as a nipper I met Les Salmon on one of Dads “expeditions”.

    • Judy Whiteside on March 25, 2019 at 11:57 am

      Thanks for taking the time to get in touch Tim. Glad you enjoyed the read.

  2. Aneurin Cooper on March 25, 2019 at 2:14 pm

    A good read. My Dad was George Cooper who wrote one of the first write ups, still have the copies of Descent magazine it appears unfortunately he died between the 2 issues it appeared came out.

    • Judy Whiteside on March 25, 2019 at 2:56 pm

      Thank you. George’s article was a brilliant reference point – incredibly detailed. Great that Neil’s story is now touching a new generation of readers 😉

  3. David Moss on April 24, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    Judy, thank you for the respectful article. I confess to missing the fact that it was the 60th anniversary of his death – the fact that people are still talking about the story means that the impact is still felt, and that, despite the tragedy, valuable lessons were learned which are still relevant today. Whilst out climbing yesterday evening, Alan Ellinson from Rope Race mentioned that he was seeing a lot of articles commemorating the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. It is at this point that I should highlight that Neil was my uncle.

    I can’t add much more to the story that’s already been told but thought that I could add some additional context. Neil was the eldest of four children, the other three were either still at school or had just left (they are still alive). Growing up, the events weren’t “not spoken about” necessarily, but my brother and I weren’t aware of the huge international attention and significance of the rescue attempt when we were younger. It was only on an outward-bound holiday (ironically after we’d just returned from a caving expedition) that we were shown a copy of (I think) the Descent magazine article (1987ish?), which brought home the magnitude of the events to us. Google now gives us access to the Pathe News footage, and much more information, and what shines through, more than anything, is the bravery and selflessness of everyone involved in the rescue attempt. This certainly is one thing that was mentioned by the family over the years.

    Last year I received a letter from a friend’s mother-in-law who was a young girl in Castleton at the time. Staying off school as she was poorly, she remembers the sirens and the later subsequent activity vividly. In fact Neil had been staying with her Aunt Ruth at Whitelee Farm – a B&B specifically catering for potholers. There were some lovely stories that she also included in the letter: Dr Willis, a rescuer delivered my friend’s wife, and Ken Pearce, another rescuer married a local farmer’s daughter.

    Eric Moss (my grandfather) had been in Special Operations during the war and it’s thought that his request that nobody else put themselves in harm’s way, with regards to the retrieval of the body, was, in part, due to the senseless loss of life that he’d witnessed in service (and common sense).

    I drive through Castleton regularly on my journey between Manchester and Sheffield and I always take the opportunity to think of him when passing Peak Cavern. As a family we frequently walk around the surrounding hills. I also climb in and around the Peak District but, conscious of family commitments, and perhaps being overly-conscious of the risks of outdoor activities, would describe myself as an “enthusiastic, non-risk taker”.

    We attended the Christmas carols in Peak Cavern last year, and whilst it was a fantastic event it was slightly surreal knowing that my uncle’s remains were close by. I suppose if you believe in “that sort of thing” then he would receive great comfort from the hymns and celebrations.

    Thank you for highlighting the myth around his remains being concreted in – this is what I was led to believe. The placement of rocks seems more dignified and is comforting.

    Once again, thank you for a well-written, respectful piece. And the fact that the lessons-learnt from the tragedy have benefited cave rescues since, give comfort to the family.

    • Judy Whiteside on April 24, 2019 at 7:28 pm

      David, thank you for such positive comments and for taking the time to respond at such length. It’s always good to know my articles are read and appreciated – especially the lengthier ones! – but even more significant, with stories like this, when the response is from a family member. Such is the nature of history telling that, no sooner have you written it up, something new always comes to light, so lovely to have your words about the family background adding context to the whole. Neil’s story certainly seemed to strike a chord at the time and continues to do so sixty years on. The response both here and through our social media post has all been positive and heartfelt and there’s been a modest revival of interest in the DVD too. Glad I could help keep your uncle’s memory alive. Thanks again.

    • David Ward on January 4, 2022 at 1:53 pm

      I am currently trying to write an account of this story based upon the various sources described including a radio interview with the late Tom Tomlinson, who played a part in the rescue attempts, and whom I had the privilege of meeting. Obviously the advent of the internet, and the publication of various accounts as well as video films has made this easier than might previously have been the case. I am anxious to ensure that my account is as accurate as possible, so any assistance would be appreciated.

  4. Frank Milner on October 31, 2019 at 8:06 am

    I think I was the last caver to be lowered down the shaft. Neil had a ready been pronounced dead. I didnt actually reach him and the decision to get out had been made.
    On retreating I managed to avoid all the press and walked out of the entrance on my own.

    • Judy Whiteside on November 1, 2019 at 3:29 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting Frank. Good to know the story is still being shared and read too!

  5. Graham chappell on March 2, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    After reading this artical it brings back momemorys I was only 8 when Neil died but I remember it well the caves round Derbyshire I no well ,been in and explored many .
    As I young man I used to go to crook stone barn
    bottom of kinder scout outward bound centre owed buy British steel where I worked.
    We used to go for wkends working and climbing potholeing and walking it was great .
    Pot holing was my favourite so no the caves round Castletown.
    But when this happened with Neil it was a lot nearer home ,2doors from me lived Peter Crabtree who was a member of caving team with Neil I fact it was Peter who invited Neil to explore the caverns in peak cavern .
    I used to talk to peter and ask him about his caving exploits all his caving clothes were always on the line what his mother had washed.
    Sadly peter died a few years ago but his wish was to have his ashes scattered at peak cavern to be with his very good friend Neil moss which his did as he wished
    Thankyou graham

    • Judy Whiteside on March 2, 2020 at 11:56 pm

      Hi Graham. Thanks for posting and apologies for the delay in responding – comments have to be approved before appearing and I’ve only just managed to login to the system. Great to hear your memories of Neil and Peter. Neil’s story is easily the most frequently read and commented on here – certainly touches a nerve with people. Good to keep his memory alive – not to mention the remarkable efforts of the cave rescuers. Judy

  6. Robert Kidd on July 24, 2020 at 11:57 am

    Doc Kidd was my Dad; I lived with this and several other heroic rescues through my childhood. While some had appalling outcomes, some did not. Just stop and think about Donna Carr, teen hours out of Giants Hole with a fractured skull. Henry Mares, out of Maskhill/Oxlow cavern. Those were Derbyshire. .In 1967 in Yorkshire,at the Mossdale tragedy, I nearly lost my Dad. Never mind the six that died. Cave rescue was a part of my childhood; I knew none other. Rob K

    • Judy Whiteside on July 24, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. Amazing how bit by bit over time we are hearing from people like you who knew these stories as part of their childhood through family involvement. So pleased that through the blog we are able to continue building on the story 😉 Very best wishes. Judy

  7. John Gillett on October 30, 2020 at 10:04 am

    After reading that Fred Davies of the Catterick Dales Club had died recently, it reminded me of other ‘Dales Club’ members. My caving tutor Boyd Potts introduced me into the club and to a career in caving. Boyd is sadly no longer with us, nor is Ralph Johnson a DCRO member, who assisted on the rescue so vividly described above. Neil Moss was a member of the ‘Dales Club’, too. The ‘Dales Club’ no longer exists except in the memories of its past members…

    • Judy Whiteside on October 30, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Thank you so much for reading and also sharing that snippet of news – great that we can keep adding memories and detail to the story.

  8. John Stuart Edge on November 26, 2020 at 8:57 pm

    Ron Peters (married to Norma) is still alive and living in Ferrers Way, Allestree, Derby. My mum was one of the Peters family and I can remember her talking about the heroic attempts to free Neil Moss. I am just sorting out names and addresses for Christmas cards when I came across your fascinating and well told story.

  9. Richard Flandrrs on August 21, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    When I was 11 (I am now 60)I was on a walking holiday with Belper Scouts when 4 of us came across an interesting character camping below Pevril castle and amongst other more fanciful stories he told us about the caver stuck for ever. I though it was a fanciful story until I read “one last breath” and googled it.
    Your article was really enlightening and stripped away fact for conjecture over the tragic events

  10. EAMONN RYAN on October 3, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    I was only 15 and living in the West of Ireland at the time. We prayed and hoped that he would be rescued. We listened to each News Bulletin on Radio Éireann as the rescue progressed, always hoping for good news but sadly it was not to be.

    Over the ensuing years I have often thought of him and his last terrifying moments. So young and yet so determined to take risks that ultimately benefitted others.

    May he Rest In Peace.


  11. Steve Troy on November 10, 2021 at 9:31 pm

    At the time all of this was unfolding I was a three year old child living in a police house in Buxton. Still to this day I can remember my father telling my mother that the potholer(as my Dad described him) would be buried in situ.
    I can’t even describe the nightmares that followed
    Steve Troy

  12. Elaine Napier on February 12, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    I lived nearby in Combs for 32 years and like many local people, I love the Winnats and learned about the young couple who were robbed and murdered by miners about two hundred years ago.

    But I’d also heard of a single caver who went into a cave on the Winnats, got stuck, and was down there for a week. It was said he could be heard screaming and, indeed could sometimes still be heard screaming now. The story suggested that he was a middle-aged man who was climbing alone.

    Then, early in 2020, a local man told me that the story I had heard was wrong In so many ways
    The caver was 20 years old, climbing with a group and became stuck in a narrow tunnel. His name was Neil Moss and his body remains in the tunnel now called Moss’s Cavern.

    I was shocked and moved to hear the true story and so. I’m sure. would you be. Search for his name in Google and remember him. his family and friends forever. So sad. RIP Neil.

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